As the Meet Everyone Else series wraps up the Atlantic division, it become abundantly clear that the division is absolutely loaded. The Celtics, Knicks, Nets, and 76ers are all likely playoff teams in the East. And really, it's just unfortunate placement for the Toronto Raptors. But weird things happen every year in the NBA, and this year I think one of those weird things could be the Raptors sneaking into the playoffs instead of, say, the Knicks or the Nets. This isn't a likely scenario, but it's one of those oddities I would hesitate to dismiss.
The Raptors had another disappointing season last year, but that was to be expected. New head coach Dwane Casey improved Toronto's win percentage despite very little new talent on the roster, going 23-43, equivalent to 28.5 wins in an 82-game season. A bigger leap should be expected in year two of the Casey era.
As noted, Toronto didn't really add talent last season. The Raptors chose to rebuild patiently, drafting Lithuanian center Jonas Valanciunas. Valanciunas spent last season overseas, but joins the roster this year. While he'll certainly experience a learning curve as he adapts the NBA, he is a young, skilled big man with the potential to anchor the Raptor front court for years to come.
Joining Jonas is nearly acquired Kyle Lowry. Lowry got off to hot start last season before missing nearly half the year to a bacterial infection. Lowry has developed into one of the best up-and-coming point guards in the league, but clashed with Rockets head coach Kevin McHale. The Raptors acquired Lowry for a future first round pick during the offseason.
The Raptors also added shooting guard Landry Fields in the offseason, signing him to a 3-year deal worth a reported $20 million. While I feel Toronto overpaid to acquire Fields, who was a restricted free agent with the Knicks, he will give them additional talent.
Jonas, Lowry, and Fields will join returning Raptors Andrea Bargnani, DeMar DeRozan, Linus Kleiza, Jose Calderon, and Ed Davis. Bargnani is what he is at this point in his career, but paired with a legitimate center, he might thrive at his more natural 4 spot. DeRozan has yet to make the leap the next level, and is beginning to look like he may never be a star. With Lowry in place, though, he may no longer need to be the star Toronto builds around, and could find a second life where he achieves nicely based on more realistic expectations. While Calderon is overpaid, and Kleiza has never lived up to expectations in Toronto, both will be solid contributors off the bench. Ed Davis doesn't really wow you when he plays, but he's another solid bench contributor.
All in all, Toronto has a deep if not flashy roster, and I think they could really surprise people. A lot of that depends on Lowry, and if he can return to form from early last season. The long term importance of Lowry is only second to the long term importance of Jonas. While Lowry should be Toronto's best player, the Raptors need Jonas to live up to the lofty expectations already being placed on him. After years of being mismanaged and drafting poorly, the Raptors finally seem to be coming together. They can't afford to have that derailed by Jonas being a bust.